LIHU‘E — Like others, Mayor Derek Kawakami spent the holidays at home with his family, ringing in 2021 differently than usual.
But he’s both thankful and grateful, he said, and he’s focusing on that positivity.
Tuesday, the county lifted its suspension on interisland travel through the state’s Safe Travels program and started its enhanced quarantine movement program, a slight reopening effort.
“For us, we’re trying to avoid that second shutdown, especially for all the businesses we talked about — the restaurants, bars, gyms, salons,” Kawakami said in an exclusive interview Tuesday.
“The tricky thing is to be able to move forward at a pace that allows us to stay open, and so far we’ve been OK. Our biggest industry is still waiting in the hopper, but you know today (Tuesday) is at least a move in the right direction as far as slowly returning to as close to normal as you can expect during a pandemic.”
Tuesday, Kawakami sat down with The Garden Island to discuss reopening, economic recovery, and 2021 goals for his administration.
What kind of metrics are you looking at to determine phased reopenings?
First and foremost, we take our health and pandemic guidance from Dr. Janet Berreman and the state’s Department of Health. They measure Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, which can ebb and flow. It can change. They’ve changed positions on a number of things, which is acceptable. That is science, which is about learning and discovering along the way.
We also take a look at the rate of infection on the mainland, especially major gateways to Hawai‘i, which would be California, the Pacific Northwest. We take a look at the worldwide situation.
Closer to home, we measure health-care capacity as far as the inventory of available beds, our isolation center if we need to have quarantine centers for people that need to quarantine separately. We look at across the state and across the nation as far as the case count: is it trending up, is it declining? And then we take a look at Kaua‘i’s situation. The Department of Health also takes a look at compliance. They’ve done a number of studies where they observe different areas across the state to see how many people are wearing masks. And that compliance level as well.
What’s it like translating those metrics when you’re proposing a rule to the governor? There’s been a little bit of back and forth figuring out what you are going to do versus what the state is doing.
It’s a complicated process operationally. I think it’s expected that it’s going to be complicated, especially in an island state such as Hawai‘i.
It can be challenging coming from the smallest county and dealing with the priorities of the big city. That happens in every single community where the voice and the priorities of the big city oftentimes outweigh the realities of the smaller towns and communities. But that’s a natural occurrence.
At the beginning of the operation, it seemed as if the mayors and counties had a lot more flexibility as far as being able to create policy and actions based on our unique situations. But now that we are transitioning into a more-statewide response, it has oftentimes made it very challenging for myself as mayor to take action in the way that we see (fit). But that is something that we’re going to have to deal with. We’re gonna continue to work with the state and deal with any type of challenge that comes our way.
Are you working on any specific plans on getting out-of-state travelers into the county or are you just sort of looking at how interisland travel goes in the coming weeks?
Today would be day one where out-of-state travelers can take a pre-travel test from their point of departure, come into Kaua‘i, stay at an EMQ (enhanced movement quarantine), or resort bubble, for three days, and take a second test, and then be able to explore the island if that test result comes back as a negative.
If mainland travelers decide to make Kaua‘i their second, third or fourth destination and they’re in the state for at least 72 hours, they would be qualified to participate in the interisland Safe Travels program. Upon that negative test result, they’d be able to basically get off the quarantine on Kaua‘i and enjoy to the full extent that is possible right now at this point in time. That is just fresh. We’re going to see how this works out.
I would say that the overall goal of the team is to get back to the state’s Safe Travel program for mainland travelers. As of today (Tuesday), we’re participating in the interisland Safe Travel program under the state.
We’re continuing to monitor our local cases, and that’s why — even more so now — the message for our community is that we have to be very diligent in our own personal behavior. We’re trying to get people back to work that have been unable, specifically for the visitor industry and for many of the small local businesses that are dependent on the foot traffic that the visitor industry brings. It’s one of those situations where the whole community has to come together and move forward as one.
Early on, there were the KERST (Kaua‘i Economic Recovery Strategy Team) goals. Is the county still brainstorming and workshopping different ideas on that community level?
Every day. One thing we have prioritized was to really bring in the thoughts and the talent from various different sectors in our community. Besides just being government-driven, we wanted to take a more-community-led approach, especially when it comes to economic recovery. It’s the approach we’ve taken before the pandemic hit and it’s definitely something that we’re going to continue to do when we get back to normal.
They continue to meet regularly and they are focused on the same two goals: short term to bring relief and ongoing work for the long-term economic-recovery strategy as far as being able to learn from this experience, find areas in our communities that we have to improve on and continue to build on that foundation.
What areas do you think could be improved?
There’s a number, but one of the big factors that the Kaua‘i Economic Recovery Strategy Team discovered that there is a much-needed improvement in our information-technology infrastructure.
As a government, we already embarked on decentralizing government, meaning we were intending to bring more services by removing them out of the urban core and start delivering those services more at a community-led level. We started off with our DMV kiosk, where you can get your motor-vehicle registration in different areas of the island with our partners.
We’re also taking a look at ways where we can invest in all the industries that support the visitor industry. We’re looking at agriculture, we’re looking at possible ways that we can help spur more innovation and high-tech jobs on Kaua‘i. We’re also taking a look at ways that we can support our local mom and pop so that they can also shift towards more innovative marketplaces as well. Many of the local mom and pops adjusted rather quickly on their own by offering their goods online. We’re just trying to really give a diversified portfolio of options to our local businesses so that if they choose to, they have more tools in their tool bag to be successful moving forward.
Outside of the pandemic, what are your 2021 goals?
2021 goals are to continue to focus on our bread and butter, which is our core services. The delivery of our core services include the infrastructure, affordable housing, capital improvement projects, improvements and repairs.
Even more so now, we’re going to continue to look at ways that we can improve as an organization. We were one of the first administrations to approach our County Council and say we want you folks to conduct performance audits, and we will willingly participate and make ourselves available because we want to improve. We want to identify where we’re strong, see where we need to improve on our weaknesses.
We’re also going to have to be very mindful that we’re going to have to stretch our dollar a lot longer than your typical day-to-day operation. We’re taking a look at making sure we have a good, solid maintenance program because we have to make our equipment and tools last longer. We have to make sure that we’re equipping our workers that are out there delivering services with the right equipment that they know how to operate and take care of as well.
The 2021 goals are basically the same goals that we had coming in. It is to make sure that we take care of what we already have. Oftentimes, many organizations, both in the public and private sector, fall into that downward spiral of overlooking the importance of maintenance, and then we fall into the big challenge of catching up with deferred maintenance.
Of course, we totally understand that you’re going to have to have new projects. Every time we add more affordable-housing inventory that that’s going to be a new project. But for the most part, we’re focusing on road resurfacing and making sure our current existing infrastructure is operating. It’s not glamorous, but we believe as a team that local government should be focused on its core services and taking care of our existing inventory of assets. Those types of projects are also job-creators. They help get people back to work to improve the quality of life for our people.
What message would you send to people who are going on maybe their ninth month of unemployment?
The only real thing, and it’s so very hard, but they have a team that has dedicated every hour of their day and night into making sure that we get people back to work. They have a team that’s working night and day to ensure that the health and safety of our people is a top priority.
We’re gonna work this thing all the way through to the finish line, until we get quality into brighter and sunnier days every single day.
They should be hopeful because we’re already moving towards a more-promising future with vaccines being distributed by our Department of Health, really moving quickly and diligently to distribute the vaccines.
We already have new technology as far as pandemic response, (and technology) has already improved. We have a digital contact-tracing application that the state of Hawai‘i is going to be deployed that we are going to be pushing people to participate.
We continue to use the best guidance as far as health and safety to walk the fine line of balancing health and economic recovery. Our overarching goal is to be able to continue to advance and move forward and keep our economy open and open more and more of our economy in a staged, safe fashion.
Historically, we’ve been dealt our fair share of natural disasters, temporary hardship, and we’ve always come through. This community knows how to band together and remain optimistic. And not only that, but to be better. I have complete faith that we’re gonna pull through this. And, as always, we’re going to learn, and we’re going to be a better, stronger community because of this challenge that we’re all facing.
I can’t remember historically a situation where, literally, the whole world is going through a big challenge all at the same time.
Sabrina Bodon, public safety and government reporter, can be reached at 245-0441 or email@example.com.